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Gordon Haskell

Cal. ‘Anti-Subversive’ Tenney Bills
Would Subvert Democratic Rights

(4 July 1949)

From Labor Action, Vol. 13 No. 27, 4 July 1949, p. 3.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

The accompanying article is condensed from a talk broadcast by news commentator Gordon Haskell over FM station KPFA-interim (Berkeley, California) on June 2. Mr. Haskell’s commentary may be heard every Thursday night at 7:45 over this station.


The present session of the California State Legislature has before it a whole sheaf of bills which, if passed, will gravely affect freedom of speech, press assembly, education and association in this state. These bills have been introduced by State Senator Jack Tenney of Los Angeles, who for some years has been chairman of the state Un-American Committee.

Most of the “Tenney Bills” require the signing of a so-called “loyalty affidavit.” The people required to sign them would be all teachers; employees of state, county and local government; all candidates for public office; employees of any employer who has a contract from the federal, state or local governments; all attorneys and candidates for an attorney’s license. In addition, such loyalty affidavits could be required by all unions from their members.

Any person in the above categories who refuses to sign such an affidavit would be denied employment or could be fired if already employed. Any person falsely signing such an affidavit could be prosecuted for perjury or for fraud in. accepting his or her salary, and could therefore be fined and imprisoned.

Definitions à la Tenney

The bills as they are actually shaping up for passage require an affidavit stating that the person does not belong to. any organization listed by the attorney general of the United States or by a congressional committee as “subversive.” People will also have to check off all organizations on the attorney general’s subversive list to which they have ever belonged or which they have supported directly or indirectly.

In this effort to remove any so-called Communist or “subversive” from any job remotely, connected with the government or government spending, Mr. Tenney has left nothing to chance. In Senate Bill 129 the terms “Communism” and “Communist” are defined for all legal purposes, as follows:

”mmunism, is a political theory that the presently existing form of government of the United States or of this State should: be changed, by force, violence or other unconstitutional means, to a totalitarian dictatorship (a) which is based on the principles of communism as expounded by Marx, Lenin, and Stalin; or (b) in which the government holds title to all or substantially all raw materials and production and distribution facilities.

“A Communist is a person (a) who practices communism or who advocates communism by word of mouth or writing; or (b) who prints, publishes, edits, issues or knowingly circulates, sells, distributes or publicly displays any book, paper or document or written or printed matter in any form containing or advocating or advising communism; or (c) who organizes, as sists in organizing or knowingly becomes or remains a member of a group of persons advocating or practicing communism; or (d) who knowingly and voluntarily assembles with a group of persons at which meeting communism is advocated.”

Wire the Washrooms

That was quite a mouthful. But there’s more to come. One bill provides that any person attending a meeting to which the press and the public aren’t invited at which “Communism” as defined above is taught must see to it that his right name is placed on a public register. If he doesn’t, he’s a criminal.

In another bill, any building or place which is used for a meeting of two or more persons at which anything “subversive” is advocated as per Mr. Tenney’s definition is declared a public or private nuisance and shall be “enjoined, abated and prevented” in about the same manner as a bawdy house or a gambling den. That includes any meeting hall, your home (which used to be your castle), or the washroom at your plant.

We mention this last especially for Mr. Tenney’s benefit. Experience indicates that dictaphones planted at appropriate places in factory and office washrooms will quickly prove them to be veritable hotbeds of meetings of two or more persons advocating all kinds of subversion against foremen and employers, particularly with regard to “their rights under the Constitution of the United States” to administer their property and employees as they see fit. Of course, these places would also be provided with public registers so that all workers attending such meetings can put down their right names for the benefit of their boss.

Finally, an act already passed by the Senate forbids teachers to “indoctrinate any pupil with, or inculcate any preference in the mind of any pupil for” Communism, fascism or Nazism. Teachers may teach the facts about these political or social theories, but only in such a way that no one could possibly be swayed to prefer them.

Does It “Defend Democracy”?

Now what is the purpose of proposing all these bills for passage, regardless of their detailed provisions.? And what would be the effect on our civil liberties, if any or all of them actually become law?

It may very well be that you are violently opposed to the Communist Party in this country and to Stalin’s slave state which it represents. It may be, further, that somewhere you’ve picked up Mr. Tenney’s notion that all people who advocate the ideas of Marx and Lenin are for a violent imposition of a totalitarian dictatorship over the people of America.

Does it follow from this that the best way to defend democracy in America is to make it impossible for any person who might hold such views to make a living? Does it follow from this that the defense of democracy in America in the 20th century requires the denial to people who hold such views of the right to meet to. discuss them, or to publish papers and books advocating them?

Is it really passible that democracy in America today is so weakly and shakily enshrined in the hearts and minds of its people that the only way they can be prevented from rushing in a body to the arms of organizations which presumably advocate a violent overthrow of the government and the establishment of a totalitarian dictatorship is to start on the road to putting all such people in jail?

Just consider: Tenney says that followers of Marx and Lenin advocate such a dictatorship. I say that’s not true. But how do YOU know? Have you ever read anything actually written by them? And by that I mean not some sentence or paragraph torn out of context and quoted to prove a point in a Hearst editorial, but a book or pamphlet actually written by Marx or Lenin.

What Are They Afraid Of?

If not, can you really say you know what they and their followers stand for? If these bills are passed and rigorously enforced, it will mean that from now on no one in California will be able to become acquainted with the idea of these two great historical figures without thereby performing or abetting a criminal act.

It would certainly seem that if our present form of government and economy can really serve the interests of the people, there will never be more than a handful of fanatics who desire to forcibly overthrow it. In that case, they might as well be left alone to preach their lives to an unresponsive public.

But if that makes sense, then it would seem to follow that Mr. Tenney and the Chamber of Commerce and the Association of Manufacturers who are pressing for the adoption of these bills don’t really believe that our form of government and the economic system which it upholds CAN, in the long run, satisfy the needs of the people.

They must be afraid that sooner or later a great mass of the citizenry will become so dissatisfied that they will begin to lend ear to the “subversives,” join their organizations and carry out their policies. In fact, they must be so afraid of this that they feel the only way to prevent it is to make it impossible for the people to find out what the subversives advocate, by preventing them from holding meetings, putting out literature, or holding jobs.

But if we accept this reasoning to the end, wouldn’t it follow that if, despite the efforts of Mr. Tenney and his backers to suppress them, a majority of the people should nevertheless. find out what the subversives advocate and agree with it, that majority should then be prevented by law from exercising its will?

The Tenney bills are up for passage in the State Legislature now. Whether or not these hills, or any of them, will actually pass both houses and become law it’s hard to say. The amendments which have been offered to make them a little less harsh may succeed in getting support for them from some people who couldn’t swallow them otherwise. But if the very principle on which a measure is based is political bigotry, persecution and suppression, how can any amendments improve it?

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